Fiore dei Liberi is known as the founder of a fully-functional, holistic system of combat, used with and without weapons, that he named l’arte dell’armizare — the Art of Arms. Grappling without weapons forms the introductory section of at least two manuscripts, and is known by practitioners as abrazare, or “the art of embracing.”
Dei Liberi is often referred to by modern practitioners (erroneously, but that is a subject for a separate article) as a“wrestling master” when comparisons are made with his Germanic contemporaries . In point of fact, there is precious little in the way of wrestling instruction in the corpus of works attributed to Maestro dei Liberi, and what is present is predominantly a repetition of techniques across a variety of weapons. A portion of this is undoubtedly due to his focus on a holistic style of combat. For this reason, not only is much of the underlying structure for a wrestling system found integrated into the dagger remedies, but also throughout dei Liberi’s self-referential work.
Further reason for the dearth of wrestling instruction comes from Maestro dei Liberi himself. He states outright, in the Pisani-Dossi version of the manuscript, that some holds can be made by agreement and others in anger1. The implication being that the latter techniques are dangerous, and that he will not deal in the former. This is wrestling for earnest use and not for sport – undoubtedly limiting the breadth of material when compared to the wrestling of his (more or less) contemporaries, such as masters Ott2 or Fabian Von Auerswald3.
If then, you practise l’arte dell’armizare, and envy the breadth of material in the Liechtenauerian system and its German corollaries because of the former’s dearth of techniques, take heart. There is much to be gleaned from an exhaustive study of dei Liberi’s manuals. Extracting its heady nectar simply requires more work and a keen study of the material. This envy has led to an in-depth exploration of the underlying system of abrazare, with the stated goal of distilling the principles and techniques implicit in the plays. From this, we may form a plausible set of interpolated techniques to be formally included in any training syllabus. This study will employ primarily the four manuscripts in the main dei Liberi lineage, with the addition of the Blume die Kampfs family of manuscripts4 where required.
This exploration reveals that any throw or takedown can be reduced to its constituent parts. This may seem obvious, but these components are used to create a system of classification that is pedagogically useful and tactically relevant to applying the Art in practice
These constituent parts are: relative position, grip, and the method of breaking structure. We’ll examine each of these as they apply to our exploration of a complete grappling system. The process is a relatively simple one: identify the base position from which the throw occurs, and vary the grip and/or leverage point. The resulting takedown is not canon, but well within the structure and principles of dei Liberi’s material, and is internally consistent with his system. This article therefore deals with a classification system for takedowns based on position relative to your partner. This choice isn’t entirely arbitrary, as it mirrors the use of the poste (guards) to provide waypoints for the application of technique, serving as visual and tactical mnemonic devices.
Finally, a word on nomenclature. This article will employ the terms “throw” and “takedown” interchangeably. As a rule, however, a throw is defined as having amplitude, while “takedowns” bring the partner to the ground without lofting them in the air, with the latter being much more common throughout the tradition.
As we have established, the present, five takedowns classification system is positionally based, and derives first and foremost from the canonical plays. Any of the components could have formed the basis for a classification system, but relative position is in keeping with dei Liberi’s use of poste as a pedagogical tool as well as being less mutable. Where distance and grip may change, relative position is largely stable, making its choice as the basis for a classification a logical one. This nomenclature is not meant as an absolute classification system, but rather serves as a pedagogical aid when teaching. Practitioners learn to identify positions and then apply throws based on the current tactical situation relative to their position.
As the first part of the process of identifying these positions, one must attempt to deconstruct what the companion5 is attempting to do to the Player performing the illustrated play. It seems clear that if the scholar (or master)6 is defending with a technique, the Companion therefore must be attacking with some technique as well, and not just playing the part of a foil for the scholar’s techniques. From this assumption, we find that there are five basic positions from which techniques are attempted, forming the basis for our “five throws”, and can be grouped into corresponding pairs :
- Forward – a position with both players facing generally in the same direction, with the Companion being projected forward.
- Reverse – Again, both players face the same direction, but the pivot point or lever projects the Companion backwards.
An astute practitioner will note that the forward and reverse positions form a corresponding pair and counter one another directly.
- Inside – From a position where both players face one another, the combatant applying the technique places his pivot point (generally the leg) to the inside of his opponent. For reference, a modern judo corollary could be o-uchi-gari. The Companion is generally projected backwards.
- Outside – As above, this is a position where both players face one another, with the player performing the technique having his pivot point outside of his opponent. Perforce, the Companion is generally projected backwards.
Once again, the direct counter to the above techniques is its corresponding position.
- Backward – for Fiore practitioners, this is best identified as the gambarola (a tripping maneuver), which while warned against, still figures prominently in several places. This position is not paired, but its direct counter is, in fact, itself – a fact Maestro dei Liberi takes pains to warn against. This position equally results in a backwards projection of the Companion.
As we peruse the manuscript, we see numerous examples of the above positions. For instance, the gambarola throw is found in numerous places. Without showing exhaustive examples of these throws, several exemplars follow, for reference.
We can apply this analysis to any number of techniques. Looking for instances of throws corresponding to the reverse throw yields any number of throws, as the gallery below illustrates.
As the images demonstrate, the relative positions and directionality of the throws in dei Liberi’s system remain the same regardless of the weapon, lever or fulcrum employed, and (with some arguable grey areas), number five in total. These five positions form a baseline for an internally consistent interpolated system using dei Liberi’s outlined principles allowing the development of a full grappling system.
It should probably be noted at this juncture that the ensuing derivative techniques are not suitable for use in armour, for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article. Addressing this issue, any martial system employs a panoply of techniques based on principles that are applied situationally. Fiore demonstrates much of his Art outside of armour, but one is expected to apply a specialised subset of it for use in armour – there is no reason why a seasoned practitioner could not make the same situational choice with regards to wrestling techniques.
Grip, poste and measure
As the second of the three components of a throw (position, grip and lever), grip plays an important role. Any study of grip also requires one to consider measure, since grip and measure correspond closely, with any grip gained being a function of distance to the adversary, and often opportunistic.
Grip, as used in this context, refers to a hold on any viable portion of the opponent, either to his clothing or an anatomical feature. The collar, lapel, belt, or sleeve all form grip locations, as well as the neck, armpit, waist, etc. Any combination of these grips can form a hold (neck and elbow, neck and belt, chin and waist, etc).
Grips and holds are a function of the poste, or guards. These guards provide waypoints for determining possible actions. Finding yourself in one of these positions, you have a place from which to move or perform a technique. Dei Liberi illustrates four abrazare poste, from whence all grappling actions may flow. Aside from being waypoints, they are representative of different actions. Examine the poste images below – the captions illustrate possible actions represented by each guard.
Each posta has defining characteristics that we use to categorise a throw. These defining characteristics are as follows:
- Posta frontale – has both arms forward, shoulders squared. This can represent a two hand grab, a push, a grip around the torso, or any other action in which both arms are forward and/or the shoulders are squared to the opponent.
- Porta di ferro – is the end point for all standing throws. It is also representative of low holds and grabs (around the waist, a leg pick, etc.)
- Dente di cinghiale – has the player turned in profile, with a bent arm. It can represent an uppercut, a block, an elbow push, or an underhook. When coupled doubly with another posta, it may be turned square, with the bent arm representing the position.
- Posta longa – its defining charactersitic, besides the outstretched arm, is the body in profile. It can represent a punch, a grab, a push, or any number of situations with an outstretched arm.
The classification by poste is often down to judgement. The person using this classification system may indeed classify some throw sdifferently (which is why the principal classification is by positioning), but ultimately, we seek not absolutism, but a tool whereby we can recognise positions from which to act. If this goal is reached, the system is benefitting practitioners.
It must also be understood that these poste can be used singly or doubly, and in a variety of combinations, and that they counter one another – a useful quality for positions used as mnemonic waypoints!
With the understanding that poste represent grips, a progression from canonical plays to applied armizare transpires by simply shifting grips. When performing a gambarola type takedown, for instance, shifting from a posta longa to a far posta frontale grip, one arrives at what is seemingly a different throw, yet remains unmistakably a backward throw.
Shifting again to a porta di ferro grip yields yet another throw, still within the parameters of a backward throw.
As mentioned previously, grips are dependent on relative measure. If the companion is not close enough to gain a classic neck and elbow hold, or one of the holds described above, an attempt can still be made at a backward throw, employing dei Liberi’s principles. As an example, the photo below illustrates a ‘near’ posta frontale grip that enables a throw that is particularly efficient against a taller/larger opponent.
Having used the gambarola as an exemplar play, the same process can be applied to the entirety of his works. By changing positions, or adapting grip according to measure, a large number of techniques can be described. More examples employing other positions are found in the below gallery:
The following gallery illustrates the points made above regarding shifting grips. Each throw is clearly a backward throw, but the grip changes in relation to measure and the tactical situation. This gallery is followed by a second set of images treating the forward takedowns, reinforcing the notions presented here.
Many of these positions are found in the wider armizare tradition, notably the Blume die Kampfs family of manuscripts. Below are several instances.
Leverage, lacking a better term, is the mechanism by which a practitioner may break his opponent’s balance, or structure. This is accomplished by either leveraging over a fulcrum, such as a leg, or employing joint manipulation/pain compliance to break structure.((For our purposes ‘structure’ refers to the alignment of the spine in relation to the hips in order to remain balanced. By moving the hips out of alignment with the shoulders, and thus misaligning the spine, or by moving the shoulders out of line with the hips by some mechanism, structure, and hence balance, is compromised.))
As an example of employing a fulcrum, we can again use the gambarola as our exemplar. The player seeks to lever the companion over his leg, which serves as the fulcrum.
As an example of joint manipulation, we can examine the ligadura soprana, in any of its forms, as it forces the body out of alignment using joint manipulation and, if the companion fails to comply handily, pain compliance, to perform a takedown technique.
In both cases, we have examples of backward takedowns using different levers or mechanisms. If the reader recalls, we have already visited a canonical play employing joint manipulation as a lever – the forward armbar throw. What if we remove the joint constraint, and employ grips?
Finally, no exploration of throws would be complete without mentioning strikes. In the interest of concentrating efforts on the categorisation of techniques, strikes have been ignored here, as any in-depth discussion of striking is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that strikes might not only be employed, they most certainly would be employed, as a part of dei Liberi’s “five things.”7. These blows, whether or not they actually make contact, are integral to the application of any grappling technique. Pain compliance results if the blow lands, and an exploitable flinch reaction results if it doesn’t. Take care when integrating strikes to any training regimen, and preferably only once proper form and technique have been assimilated by students, using all due care to avoid injury.
The use of strikes also forms part of the proper sequence for any throw, by breaking structure before attempting any technique. Indeed, the sequence “unbalance, enter, throw” is key to the proper application of any throw, in any Art. Can a powerful person manage without proper technique? Of course, but one must then wonder if said person is practising the Art to its fullest expression.
Finally, while much of what precedes is not canon, it is well within the realm of applied abrazare, because while dei Liberi illustrates optimal positions, his greatest asset is the transmission of principles. It is doubtful he would have shaken his head, accepting defeat in the face of an incapacity to achieve canonical positions.
Photography by Jean François Gagné
Models: Jason Smith & Rachel Beauchamp
Pisani Dossi manuscript – “Because, in techniques that are only for practice, the holds are “holds of love”, and not “holds of anger”. Regarding the art of wrestling to gain holds, sometimes you do it for anger and sometimes for your life, and these are techniques that you can’t practice with courtesy, even if they are techniques dangerous to practice.” ↩
Ott Jud, aka “Ott the Jew” was a 15th century wrestling (Ger. ringen) master and member of the Society of Liechtenauer whose work appears in several manuscripts from 1443 (MS Chart A.558) to the 1550s (Codex Icon 393 I) and who is thought to have influenced many masters of his time. ↩
A 16th century ringen master to Elector John Frederick of Saxony, and who left us the manuscript 2° Codex MS Philos. 62 (ca. 1539 ↩
The Blume die Kampfes family of manuscripts (a German nickname derived from “Flower of Battle”) are a set of treatises in German sharing a clear lineage with Fiore dei Liberi’s Il Fior Bataglia. There are three known exemplars: Cod. 5278, MS B.26 , Cod. 10799 ↩
For the purposes of the article, the nomenclature of “Player” and “Companion” is used to denote the person performing the technique, and the person receiving it, respectively. ↩
Maestro dei Liberi uses a system of Guard Masters, Remedy Master and Counter Masters as a pedagogical device. Each of these masters may in turn have scholars, applying the lessons taught by their masters and performing techniques of their own. ↩
Fiore names “five things” to do against a dagger: disarm, strike, bind, break and throw ↩